A U.S. Navy warship sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea on Friday, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing, which accused it of intentionally stirring tensions.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur sailed near the Paracel Islands, challenging what U.S. officials called China’s “excessive maritime claims.”
The operation was the fourth challenge the United States has made to what it says are overreaching maritime claims by China in the South China Sea in the past year.
The Decatur “conducted this transit in a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident,” Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross told The Japan Times. “The United States conducts these routine operations on a regular basis around the world, in full compliance with international law.”
A Chinese Defense Ministry statement called the patrol “a gravely illegal act” and “intentionally provocative.” China’s navy sent two warships that “spotted and verified” the U.S. vessel and warned it to leave, the ministry said.
The patrol sailed near Triton and Woody Islands in the Paracel chain, Reuters reported. China has a runway on Woody Island, the site of the largest Chinese presence on the Paracels, and has placed surface-to-air missiles there, the report said. The Paracels are occupied by China but also are claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
Ross said the patrol did not pass within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of any disputed land feature.
“This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims, not territorial claims to land features,” he said. “The United States has been clear that we take no position on competing territorial sovereignty claims to naturally formed land features in the South China Sea.”
The so-called freedom of navigation operation is the first known patrol since a July ruling by an international arbitration court invalidated China’s claims to much of the strategic waterway.
It also comes just on the heels of a landmark meeting between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The last such operation, which occurred in May, went within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross reef in the Spratly Island chain. China scrambled fighter jets in response.
In January, a U.S. destroyer went within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, an action China called “irresponsible and extremely dangerous.” The first operation was conducted in October, when a U.S. warship navigated within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratlys.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims in the waters.
Washington has blasted Beijing’s build-up of military facilities in the waters — including military-grade airfields — and expressed concerns that the outposts could be used to restrict free movement. China has denied the U.S. claims, saying the facilities, which also include lighthouses, benefit the international community.
Beijing has labeled U.S. patrols in the area as “meddling.”
In its statement, the Defense Ministry said the Chinese government had announced its “territorial sea baseline” in the Paracels in 1996, which it said the U.S. was aware of.
“Sending warships into China’s territorial waters without permission is a serious offense,” the statement added, calling the move “aggressive” and “intentional.”
In an editorial Saturday, China’s state-run Global Times newspaper said the operation showed that the U.S. “doesn’t want to see peace in the South China Sea, and that it wants waves there.”
“They chose the Xisha Islands this time, probably with the intention to arouse the interest of Vietnam and test its reaction,” the editorial added, using the Chinese name for the Paracel Islands.
China seized the Paracels from South Vietnamese forces in a bloody battle in 1974.
“After Duterte has repeatedly ridiculed Washington, U.S. ships going to China-Philippines disputed waters will be fruitless, therefore the U.S. has decided to change direction,” the editorial said.
“We hope that Vietnam will see through the U.S.’s intentions and not fall into their trap,” it added.
The White House confirmed the operation and defended the move.
Asked if the Chinese could view the patrol as a provocative act, spokesman Josh Earnest said: “They shouldn’t, because this is a principle that reflects what we believe is the broad interest of the international community.”
Friday’s operation came just a day after Duterte — whose predecessor initiated the arbitration case — sought rapprochement with China during a visit to Beijing, where he declared his nation’s “separation” from the U.S. as it seeks to bolster ties with the Asian giant.
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank, said the timing of Friday’s operation was unlikely to have been related to Duterte’s announcement.
“These exercises are planned well in advance,” he said. “I am pretty sure that it is merely a coincidence that it overlaps with Duterte’s visit.”
The Philippine president is scheduled to visit Japan for a three-day trip starting Tuesday.
In an separate editorial Friday, the Global Times said it was “time to let the dust settle” on the South China Sea dispute, but warned that the U.S. and its allies may seek to “further stir confrontation.”
“The U.S. may pressure the Duterte government and … Japan will try to turn Duterte around during his upcoming Tokyo visit,” the editorial said, adding that Washington and Tokyo “have the obligation to de-escalate tensions for regional benefits.”
In the U.S., critics including Sen. John McCain have slammed the Obama administration’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. McCain has called the operations an “indecisive policy” that has failed to rein in China’s “pursuit of maritime hegemony” while “confusing and alarming” regional allies and partners.
But Daniel Russel, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, offered a caveat for critics earlier this month.
The Pentagon does not necessarily announce every freedom of navigation operation, “so some things are visible; some things are only visible to people with radar and tracking,” Russel told the Breaking Defense website. “The Chinese are not being let off the hook.”
James Schoff, a former senior adviser for East Asia policy at the Defense Department, echoed Russel’s statement but noted that the freedom of navigation operations are just one tool available to the U.S.
“Ultimately, the future of Asia’s security order is not going to rise or fall” with such operations, Schoff said. There are so many other factors — diplomacy, multilateral forums, exercises, capacity-building, etc. — and players to consider.”
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